Analysis: Lesser-known destinations leverage pride of the locals

With international travel on the decline, vacation spots closer to home are stepping up their efforts. But every area has a unique set of issues.

With international travel on the decline, vacation spots closer to home are stepping up their efforts. But every area has a unique set of issues.

Each year, as the warmer months approach, a certain type of story starts appearing with predictable regularity - "City X hires Agency Y to reach out to travelers and boost tourism." According to the Travel Industry Association of America, the number of Americans who travel overseas dropped 6% in both 2001 and 2002. "Destinations and CVBs [convention and visitors bureaus] are realizing that they need to market themselves more aggressively as more people want to stay close to home," says Wendy Nichols Clark, an account director in Weber Shandwick's travel practice. "They're looking for marketing muscle behind their campaigns." While some of the cities and regions kicking off campaigns, such as Atlantic City, Beverly Hills, and Philadelphia, may seem like natural vacation spots, others, like suburban Detroit, suburban Seattle, Missouri, and rural Texas, are using PR to lure the coveted tourist dollar. As one might expect from those who make a living in the hospitality industry, travel clients understand that connecting with people is well worth the money. Tom Faulkner, VP for accounts and media service at Fuse PR, agency of record for the state of Missouri, explains that tourism clients are PR savvy. "They're spending millions of dollars on marketing," he says. "They are very smart." So what happens once an agency is hired? Selling a lifestyle Rick French, president and CEO of Raleigh, NC-based French/West/Vaughan (FWV), says the obvious first step is to have the PR team go to the destination. FWV recently won the account to drive tourism in Oakland County, Michigan, a suburban area near Detroit, which has more golf courses than any other county in the country - though as yet, this is not a widely known fact. French says it is important for the PR team to research the perceptions of the people there and find out what makes that place unique. "You're selling a lifestyle experience," French says. "There aren't but a half-dozen destinations in the US that people just go to for a very specific purpose. Florida might have that for the beaches and the theme parks. Washington, DC, Boston, and Philadelphia to an extent have the history, but there are not many cities where the product is so identifiable. If you don't look at the natural resources of the places you're marketing and talk to the people who are most likely to be interested, then you're marketing the wrong way." Faulkner agrees. "For each of our campaigns, we tried to take what we can find and ask how we can market that to our audience," he explains. But who, exactly, is the audience? How does a PR team identify its target when the general goals of a campaign are simply to get people to go there? "It depends on the destination," French says. "If you're a more widely accepted location, you might break it down by demographic." In the case of Florida, he notes, one can target young people with the beaches, older people with the weather, and families with the theme parks. "In our case, we're targeting niche groups," he adds. "The Detroit area is not a heavily trafficked tourist area, like Colonial Williamsburg or Miami Beach. You've got to go after enthusiast groups." In the case of Oakland County, French says the campaign will have different phases to attract different audiences. One phase will focus on golf enthusiasts (a well-timed effort, as the Ryder Cup tournament will come to Oakland County in August, and with it, the international press), another on car enthusiasts, and still another on those looking for upscale shopping. When representing the state of Missouri, Faulkner says it is important to be realistic when looking for a target audience. "We are more of a weekend getaway vacation versus a two-week vacation," he says. In targeting an audience within a five-hour driving distance, the Fuse team tried to appeal to travelers feeling the weight of the recession. "We have all the shopping and major offerings of a city like Chicago, but you don't have to spend as much money," adds Faulkner. "The hotel rates are cheaper, so you can stay at a five-star hotel," French says no matter who the audience is, it is important to make the experience easy and comfortable. "One of the biggest fears that people have when traveling is, 'What will I do when I get there,'" he explains. "So part of the effectiveness of a good tourism campaign is giving them a turnkey experience. If you give it to them in a way that they have an itinerary, then they're not as intimidated." While keeping audiences in mind, a campaign also has to be aware of the many stakeholders involved. While the client may be a CVB or tourism department, there are other entities with business at stake. French explains: "The stakeholders are businesses in the region, anything that raises tax receipts." As a result, measuring the reaction to a campaign can be nebulous. "You measure it by tourism traffic," according to French. "We do it with visitor surveys, through hotel and rental companies, asking them how they learned about it." Overturning stereotypes While many campaigns are designed to drive tourism traffic, some will emphasize a component that aims to change perceptions of the destination. For example, the tourism boards and CVBs of Midwest cities and those with poor reputations not only want to attract a travel population, but also to dispel negative images. In June, the Greater Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Association (GMCVA) completed an extensive research program to look into perceptions of the area and compare that to reality as a basis for a campaign to begin at the end of the year. "The number-one stereotype of Minneapolis is that it's cold, and then that we're a vast prairie land and we're very white bread," says Karyn Gruenberg, VP of marketing for GMCVA. "However, the city is very developed, we have a strong arts and culture market, and we have large African and Hispanic communities." A campaign has not been developed yet, but Gruenberg says they intend to address these points. According to French, gauging customer attitudes is secondary. "Once you get them there, it's easy to change perceptions." In Oakland County's case, its proximity to Detroit, once known as the murder capital of the world, might have been a hindrance to the campaign. However, French says that instead of addressing that and dispelling it or pointing out that other cities have higher crime rates, a good policy is to ignore it and dissolve stereotypes by submerging them in positive coverage. "Detroit has not been the murder capital of the world in 20 years," notes French. "It's just one of those lingering perceptions. Theoretically, if you're going to do that, you don't want to hang other cities out to dry." Once tourists are convinced to start visiting a destination, how do you strike a balance between appealing to the desired audience and making locals feel involved? French says it's a critical part of a campaign. "We're doing hospitality training [for members of the tourism staff]. The first impression is very important. Also, a community pride campaign is a big part of it. Those people in southeastern Michigan need to be proud of their community." Faulkner adds, "You need to get your locals excited about what they are. In any city, they are blind to what they have." In Minneapolis, Gruenberg says residents already have great pride, but enjoy staying under the radar. Communicating to them during a tourism push will be slightly different. "We'll have to show them that attracting new people adds to the vitality of the city, the talent of the city. For us to continue to be vital and liberal, we need to do that."

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